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the golden spruce

13 may 2018

The Golden Spruce appeared in 2005; I first saw it in a bookstore in the Idaho Panhandle in 2014; I finally got around to reading it last week, in a copy my local public library has owned since 2005. Such are the wanderings of books and ideas. Wandering is something of a theme in John Vaillant's enduringly gripping tale of ecology and treeslaughter. His protagonist of sorts, a logger turned environmentalist turned madman named Grant Hadwin, was an insatiable wanderer. Hadwin once journeyed from British Columbia to Miami to Moscow and through Siberia, back to British Columbia, "distributing needles and condoms to anyone who wanted them" (106-107) for reasons which were never terribly coherent.

I almost called Vaillant's book "evergreen" in the last paragraph, but of course its true hero was anything but. The Golden Spruce, a 300-year-old tree that Hadwin cut down, unaided, in 1997, held a rare mutation that made its outer needles yellow instead of green. Normally trees have to be green at some point to survive. Scientists still aren't clear how the Golden Spruce survived, but theorize that green needles beneath the outer ones provided the tree with enough nourishment (using reflected light) not just to survive but to flourish.

The Golden Spruce grew on Graham Island off the coast of BC, not far south of Alaska. For most of its life, it was greatly isolated from people, known and venerated by the Haida natives of the island, but by very few others. In the decades before its death, the Spruce became much better known, but isolated in a much more ominous sense. Clear-cutting of the great Canadian rainforests had left the Spruce and a few acres of surrounding trees standing as a small oasis for eco-tourism, an ironic symbol of the logging industry that had spared it.

Why the hell would you cut such a tree down? In Hadwin's lunatic logic, the Spruce had to fall to draw attention to the countless trees that were falling all around it. The island community failed to see any good in his action, and indeed talk of lynching Hadwin, should he show up for his own trial, was rife. Whereupon Hadwin disappeared, leaving behind a scene that looked like the wreck of a kayak – too much like the wreck of a kayak, said some observers, convinced that Hadwin had staged his own demise and wandered off to Siberia again.

The Golden Spruce is compellingly readable, but not without some flaws. After opening with the discovery of the wrecked kayak, Vaillant spends about 90 pages in deep backstory. He then continually interrupts his narrative with digressions, anecdotes, histories and analyses of the timber industry, tales of Captain Cook and other explorers, reflections on the role of wood in human evolution, and just about anything you could remotely deem relevant to a story about men and trees. It's all interesting stuff, but reveals that the true-crime core of Vaillant's story is only article-length.

No matter. It only took me a day to read The Golden Spruce in any case, a day I wish I'd spent in 2005. If the book has a moral, it should be: Care about trees? Don't ####ing cut them down.

Vaillant, John. The Golden Spruce: A true story of myth, madness, and greed. New York: Norton, 2005. SD 397 .S77V35